A Fielding Memorial at Bath
From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia
A Fielding Memorial at Bath is an article written by C. K. S. published in A Literary Letter section of The Sphere on 30 june 1906.
London, June 27th, 1906.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, as I learn from The Bath Herald, gave a very interesting address at the unveiling of a tablet to Henry Fielding and his sister in the house where the two writers are supposed to have lived at Bath. It was somewhat naive of Sir Arthur to tell his audience that until he arrived in Bath he had never heard of Sarah Fielding. A reference to Mr. Austin Dobson's little book in "The English Men of Letters Series" or to the separate biography of Sarah Fielding in The Dictionary of National Biography would have told him much. The author of David Simple, moreover, died in Bath and was buried there, so that there was perhaps more reason for commemorating her than her greater brother, who died and was buried at Lisbon.
Then Sir Arthur Conan Doyle did not display quite all the enthusiasm that one might have asked for. Perhaps novelists are not the best critics of novels any more than poets are the best critics of poetry. Sir Walter Scott thought Johnson a great poet, whereas it is doubtful if he was a poet at all in the best interpretation of the word. Byron's extravagances over Pope, Shelley's over Southey, are known to all. Not one of Wordsworth's literary judgments will stand. And so perhaps we may forgive so clever a writer, so kindly a personality, as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in that he declines to proclaim Tom Jones the greatest English novel.
Sir Arthur admitted that "if a poll were taken among one hundred educated men as to the best novel in the English language a majority would probably pitch upon Tom Jones." I should say "certainly," not "probably," and it takes my breath away to find the author of Sherlock Holmes demurring to such a view. Tom Jones is our greatest novel as a work of art, and it is also a great moral force, which all works of art are not. Both these points, I understand, Sir Arthur denies. Tom Jones, he thinks, is not good family reading.
There is a pleasant book not too well known, The Autobiography of Eliza Fletcher. Mrs. Fletcher, who flourished in the first half of last century, tells us that her husband always called her "Sophia" because she seemed to him to personify the virtue and the charm of Sophia Western. As for Tom Jones, his robust and normal manhood is far removed from the diseased presentation of abnormal heroes and heroines that our age has seen in fiction. Every lapse from virtue places the lovely Sophia more remote from him. The "mud bath," as Carlyle called it, may not be idyllic, but Tom Jones is a great book. Well may Thackeray have sighed that his more prudish age would not permit him to attempt anything similar.
Fielding was not only a great novelist, a brilliant humorist, a profound critic of life, but he was a splendid moral force for those who have eyes to see. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle admits that "Amelia and Sophia Western are as perfect woman as any man has imagined"; and altogether it was an admirable address this at the Bath Guildhall. But I could wish that Sir Arthur had admired and loved his hero more.
While writing of Fielding and Bath I may congratulate Mr. J. F. Meehan, the bookseller of Bath, upon his book, More Famous Houses of Bath and District. This is the second volume of an interesting, series which should be inexhaustible. Who that is famous or was famous but has visited Bath at one time or another. I wonder, by the way, if Mr. Meehan knows that Byron's grandfather committed suicide there and that Robert Emmet, the Irish patriot, once sojourned there on a brief visit to his English relatives — the Temples.